Published August 21, 2012, IAABC (International Association Of Animal Behavioral Consultants)
In the beginning, I underestimated play. Interactive play. As an owner I knew it provided exercise (for me especially; my cat would watch while I chased—you know the drill). As time and experience as a behaviorist carried on, I learned of the many benefits that play offers for a cat’s health—not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. It can make all the difference to a cat’s complete well-being. Play is fun exercise.
We know that real play—not tossing the same ol’ toy until the cat looks at it, one day, and lies down, but real interactive action—improves muscle tone. It is hugely rewarding to see shoulder, back and leg muscles become defined in an out-of-condition cat that now has an exercise regime. Of course it is far healthier for an overweight cat to exercise more and eat less, and to dismiss, to my mind, the feline diet foods and eat less of the good stuff. I’ve also seen scrawny metamorphose to healthy bulk, because of increased leaping and chasing and dashing and pouncing.
Action motivates the couch-potato feline. Whether by illness, age or temperament, some cats don’t appreciate moving. If they could get you to forever peel kibble for them from a silver platter, while they imprint their body shape on velvet cushion, they would. The right toys and patience, not to mention encouragement, arouses my 13 year old from her cheerful lethargy. Her feline instincts blossom and her ‘inner hunter’ emerges. Our indoor kids are used to their measured, timed plates of food. Having them hunt for the odd treats and using puzzle-balls so they have to roll and paw and chase after their food reaps rewards in so many ways.
That mental stimulation: the hunting instinct, with its focus, stealth, run and attack, are not only sharpened but increased as the boredom that can come from being too domesticated in the home often enervates. Boredom saps the cat as much as the human. There’s nothing better for vanquishing it, besides a good dose of love, than making the cat move and dash…
…preferably with you. Bonding thing, play. Through play you learn to appreciate the graceful, powerful, beautiful animal she is, and she looks forward to you being there as a provider of wonderful excitement and fun. Many owners have seen their shy, under-confident little ones become friendly, assured furry beings in a household which is now less threatening. A cat must get used to a whole battery of new smells, spaces, people and paces when she comes to a new environment. Playing when she’s comfortable emerging from under the bed can work wonders when it comes to easing into her new life. Additionally it benefits the resident cats whose lives she intruded into. Increasing the exercise (separately, then gradually, together) for everyone helps to ease the situation.
Many times the dissent between members of the multi-cat household has been considerably eased by the introduction of several daily 20-minute play sessions. With individual cats, play helps them gain confidence in their new territories and families both human and feline, as well as re-channeling fear, frustration and anger into a more constructive energy outlet. When cats can play closer, and eventually together, they often learn better levels of tolerance and may even gain friendship.
Play is a huge stress and aggro-wrecker for various kinds of aggression, from redirected to territorial to intermale and others. So many behavioral issues have been calmed by introducing interactive play. The camaraderie, with joy, creates a happier outcome as the anxiety and the aggression is properly, healthily re-channeled.
Many a cat, having gone through some ordeal—gaining a new home, losing an owner or best cat-friend, or showing common symptoms of depression (decreased eating or grooming, hiding, increased sleeping, vocalizing)—has been able to adapt, even thrive, through structured and plentiful activity. I’ve observed cats clearly mourning for a loved fur-friend adjust far more rapidly to a life without him because he’s been distracted through action, and those endorphins whizzing around (no, it’s not scientific) mean he’s feeling good.
A play session before bedtime can help the cat sleep further into the night, and can help keep owners’ ankles from being attacked due to frustration at not being able to—you guessed it—play, hunt, catch! I’m willing to bet the quality of sleep is healthier, as well.
Exercise can also help cats who previously had access to the outdoors but now need to adapt to an indoor life. While different countries continue to stoke the controversy over which means a healthier life, the fact is more people are keeping their cats inside. To give them the best quality of that life possible it’s crucial not only to provide the territory, the ‘cat TV,’ the posts and the potted grass, but interactive play—lots of it—as well, to ensure those instincts are able to emerge and thrive! In my part of the world coyotes, irrigation pipes and sizzling temperatures take their toll. When advising clients to help their cats adapt to an indoor environment that kind of exercise (interactive play) is at top of the list. The results speak for themselves: they adapt—and adapt well.
Play’s fun! Even if you were out of the habit before pets came into your life, remember what it did for you when you were younger. You’re getting the same stimulation, the action that your cat is, together! You’re running around more. You’re learning this toy works and that one doesn’t, by trial and error, not to mention a bit of frustration on your part. You’re spending calories. You’re thoroughly enjoying yourself and your happier, healthier animal.
What gym could do that?